Nash Cox finds his soul in automobiles, and his art, before it’s too late

The Chariton native’s watercolors will be on display at the Corydon State Bank in January

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Nash Cox jokes around with a few of his watercolor paintings, on display during the month of January at Corydon State Bank, sponsored by WAYCO Arts Council. / Photo by Jason W. Selby

At age 42, Nash Cox decided to become an artist. By the time he finished his first painting, he was by definition a professional.

“I went to an art show about five years ago, and I was talking to an artist there,” Nash said. “He asked about my art, and I said I wasn’t an artist. He told me he thought I was an artist, and I was wasting my time.

“I thought, ‘This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’

“I used to draw all the time when I was a kid in grade school, and I thought I wanted to be an artist when I grew up, but I couldn’t paint—I couldn’t do anything with a brush, I couldn’t do anything with color. And after [graduating from] school, I was busy with everything else. You get busy with life, jobs and cars.

“I gave up on my childhood dream of being an artist. After high school, I didn’t do any art at all.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people think art is something you do in school, and it’s something you stop when you become mature. You put away your crayons and you get a job.

“I thought about it for a year, and decided maybe I’d give it a shot. I bought some watercolors and brushes, because I thought watercolor was the easiest medium. I’ve learned since then, it’s not.

“I did a painting, and it turned out great, and I sold it. I thought, ‘Shoot, guess what? I’m an artist.’ So, I started just over four years ago. I didn’t know I had the capacity to do what I’m doing now. It was a shock to me and everybody else.”

It was Steve Scott, also a resident of Chariton, who gave Nash the push he needed.

“I’ve done construction forever, and carpentry,” Nash said. “I was working at a place doing metal fabrication, and I discovered it was ruining my eyesight. That was shortly after I talked to Steve Scott. I thought maybe I’d better give this one more shot, or else I’d stay at this place and lose my eyesight.”

Later, he worked a part-time job while getting his next career started. Nash asked for time off to attend an art show. A supervisor told him it was great he had a hobby, but he had to get his priorities straight.

Therefore, Nash got his priorities straight. He quit the part-time job and began his studio.

“It’s not really paying, but I’m happy, man,” Nash said. “If you have the capacity to do it, you should do it. I’d much rather be broke and doing what I enjoy.”

Susan Baer

Nash is a 1992 graduate of Chariton Community High School. His junior high art teacher, Susan Baer, was The Wayne County Independent editor Jennifer Pruiett-Selby’s high school art teacher.

It was Baer who suggested that Nash display his work at the Corydon State Bank.

“She shows on occasion,” Nash said. “She was supposed to do the show, but she wasn’t able to—she’s gone on vacation. She got a hold of me. So, I’m sort of the substitute artist, at this point.”

To step inside the bank and see Nash’s display, no one would guess he had ever been a substitute for anyone.

“You’d be impressed,” said Wayne Jackson of WAYCO Arts Council. “His watercolors look metallic.”

“It’s all vintage automotive,” Nash said. “I enjoy the detail. Some people have told me I do watercolor wrong, because it’s supposed to be loose and suggestive, but I love to create the illusion of texture—anything from the chrome to the rust.”

One of Nash’s paintings depicts his 1953 GMC pickup, which has plenty of both chrome and rust. It has character.

“That’s what I drive every day,” Nash said. “I was working with a guy, doing construction, and we went to a place to get some parts, and that truck was just sitting there derelict. I offered the guy some money and bought it.

“What I didn’t know at the time was the darn thing ran—I drove it home. I’ve done a lot of work to it. It’s just got the old straight six. It limits how far I can go, or what I can do.”

David Blong

“Right now, my fulltime job is as an artist,” Nash said. “I’m self-taught.

“I think everybody’s an artist. It’s just we’re all artists in our own capacity, in one way or another.

“Some people, when it comes to working on cars, they’re great artists. When it comes to cooking food, they’re artists. There’s a lot of that kind of art I can’t even touch.”

Nash and wife Terry live in Chariton. He runs a studio on the second floor of the north side of the Chariton square, above Blong Chiropractic, where Terry works. She also started a gym, and provides one-on-one training.

“Best boss I’ve ever had in my life,” Terry said of Dr. David Blong. “He rents my space for my gym, and he rents Nash’s space for his studio.”

“I was hoping it would be like a spousal avoidance unit,” Nash said, and Terry laughed.

“But it doesn’t work, because I’m right across from him,” Terry said. “Everybody needs their space.”

“Everybody needs space, except she has the key to my space,” Nash said.

“He was trying to decide whether he was going to do this fulltime, and I said I’d support you 100 percent,” Terry said. “He’s got amazing talent. There’s not many people who can do what he does.”

“I just totally fake it,” Nash joked. “They’re all Photoshopped.”

“I told him, ‘Whatever we have to do to make this happen, we’ll do it,’” Terry said. “I want him to be able to follow his dreams, because most people don’t get that opportunity.”

Pillars

“I used to be just the little guy from Chariton,” Nash said of his status in the art world, “but I’ve met people everywhere. The other day, a guy called from Florida—never met him before—talked to me for an hour and a half about my art. I’m meeting all kinds of incredible people.

“Sales are tough. That’s the thing. People love my art, but they’re not ready to buy it. Part of the issue is, people are afraid to spend money on art around here.

“A lot of people don’t think you can hang a painting of a car on your wall as easy as you can hang a painting of a barn.”

This has nothing to do with nails, hooks, wire or keeping a picture level. The Midwest is somewhat stereotyped in its artistic taste. It forgets it has produced a few of the greatest literary geniuses and fine artists the world has ever known.

One of those men is John Rogers Cox, no known relation to Nash. Another is Grant Wood, who studied in France but returned to Iowa and created his own style.

“That’s what people should do,” Nash said. “Learn. Learn everything you can, but ultimately do what is uniquely you. That’s not where I’m at, but I’m getting there. I hope to be there at some point.

“People who have the most interest in my art are from California, Florida—the farther away from Iowa, the more interest I get. I’ve sold two prints that have gone to Australia and to Mexico.

“The nice thing is, the Internet opens that up—if it wasn’t for the Internet, I’d be doing paintings and sticking them in the closet, and working in a warehouse.”

In some ways, however, Nash’s years in construction and working with wood finetuned his senses, provided him an education he could not have gained in an art school or overseas.

“It’s helped me develop spatial [recognition], to get the depth of field,” Nash said, “the three-dimensional appearance of my paintings.

“When I did carpentry, I loved to work with my hands, but I was always frustrated people didn’t want to do anything creative. If you built them a house, it had to just be cookie cutter.

“I’d say, ‘You’ve got this space here—let’s put in a butler pantry with a barrel-vault ceiling and some pillars.’

“And they’d say, ‘No, let’s just make a closet.’

“So, yes, this is cool. A lot of people want me to paint barns and windmills, but I’m doing what I want to do.”

Soul

“I’ve always been fascinated with automobiles,” Nash said. “When I was a kid, my dad always drove stuff from the 30s and 40s. To me, that was the normal thing, and I always wondered why people wanted new stuff. I’m fascinated with the simplicity of the earlier vehicles. There was nothing to hide. Everything mechanical was right there.

“It’s like the car developed a soul that was part of you. Whereas, today, the cars have computers and they do their own thinking. You’re just along for the ride.

“As far as painting, I didn’t plan to become just an automotive artist. The first thing I did, I painted a car. I painted a couple more cars. And then I painted a newel post out of a house I was working on—it was beautiful. I’ve often looked at it and thought, I’d love to build that thing, but I don’t even know how you’d start—it’s magnificent. So I had to paint it.

“I have a fascination with cars, but I can’t own them—I don’t have the money for that. But I can own them in a capacity, in a small way, by painting them.

“Maybe this is a phase, and I’ll move on to painting something else, but maybe not. I’m having a blast with this.”

“Every watercolor he does, each image has a story to go along with it,” Terry said.

“There’s always something interesting that happens before or after the painting,” Nash said.

Humanity

“That’s the first painting I did with people in it,” Nash pointed out the watercolor farthest south in the display. “I was at a car show in Dubuque. It was a cold day. I took reference photos of that car.

“I went and sat in my truck. There were a bunch of people standing around that car. I’m watching them, and I loved the way those two guys are standing there—there’s a story to that. So, I took a picture. I painted it, made prints of it and put it on my Etsy [online] shop.

“And the lady that bought it sent a message with it. She lives 800-and-some-miles away. It turns out, that’s her husband and that’s their best friend. Those two guys built that car together.

“I thought, ‘What’s the chances that lady would even find that image?’

“And of all the people I isolated—there were people standing everywhere—I left those two guys in [the watercolor], and those were the two most important people to that car.

“There’s a natural quality to that one. If someone knows their picture’s being taken…”

“They pose,” Terry completed his thought.

“The part that makes them human is gone,” Nash said. “They become a portrait instead of a man.”